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W.Va. Toyota’s Curry says manufacturing needs more young people


The State Journal

BUFFALO, W.Va. — Leah Curry, the president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia Inc., has a not-so-secret passion — helping young people, especially young women, prepare for careers in manufacturing.

Leah Curry, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia Inc.

Curry says she finds it frustrating that so few young people — especially young women — recognize the opportunities that are available to them in manufacturing.

“In manufacturing, if you work hard and work smart, with development, you can build a successful career,” Curry said. “Accordingly, we work hard to introduce students, teachers and parents to what goes on inside the four walls of a manufacturing operation.”

Curry started with Toyota working with robots on the shop floor at the company’s Princeton, Indiana, plant in 1967. At that time, Toyota had just one other vehicle manufacturing plant in the U.S. — located in Georgetown, Kentucky — and the West Virginia engine plant had just broken ground the year before.

Fast forward two decades, and Toyota now has 10 plants across the country, employing 136,000 people and producing over 2 million cars and trucks and nearly as many engines in a single year.

“Things certainly have changed since I started with the company,” she said. “In 1997, Prius was the game changer that our company and the industry was talking about. Today, while hybrid technology is still very much a part of the mobility conversation, it’s broadened to include things like autonomous driving, 3D printed cars and the Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle capable of emitting only water vapor.”

Curry likes to call Toyota’s Buffalo plant “the little engine plant that could.”

Toyota Manufacturing West Virginia President Leah Curry, left, and team member Nancy Lawson take a Toyota transmission apart and then reassemble it.
(W.Va. Toyota photo)

While it’s far smaller and has far fewer employees than Toyota’s mammoth vehicle assembly plants, the West Virginia plant is by no means pint-sized when it comes to the role it plays in Toyota’s worldwide operations.

“Toyota West Virginia is the only Toyota plant in North America to produce both four-cylinder and V6 engines and six- and eight-speed transmissions,” she side. “A new transmission rolls off the assembly line about every 25 seconds, with four-cylinder engines rolling off every 30 seconds. Those represent the fastest production times for Toyota, globally. In one year, we can crank out more than 650,000 engines and 740,000 transmissions — all with a workforce of about 1,650 team members.”

On Sept. 25, Toyota announced that in 2020 its Buffalo plant will begin manufacturing hybrid transaxles, which combine the functions of the transmission and the differential.

Curry said the new product won’t increase the plant’s workforce but will help cement West Virginia’s role in today’s rapidly evolving automotive technology. Toyota’s latest investment will add to the total of $1.6 billion the company has invested at Buffalo since it broke ground in 1996.

“Our team members are among the best in America — if not the world — at what they do. The skill it takes to build an engine, to build a transmission, or to machine a gear is impeccable,” Curry said. “As I’ve learned from our team members, it isn’t about millimeter precision; it’s about micron precision. The team members working on our gear line are trained to pick up on defects as small as 3 to 6 microns. That’s substantially less than a single strand of hair.”

At the Princeton plant where she started her Toyota career, Curry worked her way up the ladder to eventually become vice president of manufacturing for Toyota Motor Manufacturing – Indiana. She was in the post in 2015 when Automotive Newsnamed her one of the “200 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry.”

In 2016, she was selected as the new president of the company’s West Virginia plant.

Shortly after she arrived at Buffalo, Curry, a self-described gear head, had a new transmission pulled from the line. With a bit of help from a team member, she took the transmission apart and then reassembled it.

“Did it still work after you put it back together,” her children asked when she told them what she had done. “Of course, it did,” she replied, although she noted the transmission wasn’t installed in a vehicle for sale.”

The Buffalo plant operates a number of initiatives to reach out to students and expose them to the idea of a career in manufacturing.

In partnership with Bridge Valley Community & Technical College, Toyota offers paid internships to recent high school graduates.

“The students have an opportunity to learn who we are and what we do, earn a little money and at the end of the program collect a two-year degree from Bridge Valley,” she said. “We end up hiring many of those in the program.”

For three years, Toyota has sponsored the WVU Tech Summer Academy for Girls which brings high school girls to the school’s Beckley campus to take interactive STEM courses, explore careers in the STEM fields and meet women who have built successful careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

“Not only is STEM education vital to the future of manufacturing, it is crucial to the success of West Virginia,” Curry said. “Females in the manufacturing industry are under-represented yet needed, and this camp encourages female students to analyze their boundaries and expand their horizons to career possibilities they never thought possible.”

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